Panel recommends review of nanomaterials' potential health, environmental risks

Panel recommends review of nanomaterials' potential health, environmental risks

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January 26, 2012 

Nanomaterials have become increasingly popular over the past decade, but the National Academy of Sciences cautioned this week their potential environmental and health risks must be studied more.

Nanomaterials are currently used in products ranging from electronic equipment to makeup and clothing. Their surging popularity has been prompted by the unique characteristics of nanoscale forms of substances including silver, carbon, zinc and aluminum, The New York Times reports. Nanoscale zinc oxide is used in sunscreens and as a result, it can be applied smoothly onto the skin.

Still, some scientists have raised concerns over the past few years over whether nanomaterials potentially carry long-term health and environmental risks. Critics contend that such materials can seep into the environment during the manufacturing process, and that the skin could absorb them.

The National Academy of Sciences said this week that while investment in nanotechnology has surged, little is known about its effects on the environment and health and safety. As a result, the group endorsed a report from the National Research Council that presents a delineated approach for the study of nanomaterials.

Officials from the agency asserted that the nanotechnology sector is forecast to grow at a torrid pace over the coming years. Without a comprehensive understanding of how it affects both public health and the environment, nanotechnology could negatively impact the worldwide economy. Underscoring the sector's rapid growth, the global nanotechnology market is expected to rise from roughly $1 billion in 2009 to more than $3 trillion by 2015.

Scientists conceded that some researchers had worked to identify and develop an overarching safety architecture for the sector. However, they noted that there has been little progress made in the study of how nanomaterials expected to reach worldwide markets over the next decade could impact the climate, and whether they are dangerous if ingested.

The scientific governing organization recommended that four research categories be addressed within the next five years. It said that officials should first identify and quantify the nanomaterials being released and the populations and environments to which they will be exposed.

Moreover, it asserted that scientists must study the processes affecting both potential hazards and exposure to nanomaterials. It also recommended that researchers examine nanomaterials interactions in complex systems, ranging from sub-cellular structures to ecosystems. Lastly, it proposed the creation of an "adaptive research and knowledge infrastructure for accelerating progress and providing rapid feedback to advance research."

The creation of the panel, which the National Research Council organized, was spurred by a request from the Environmental Protection Agency, according to the Times. University of Southern California epidemiologist Jonathan M. Samet, who chaired the panel, said that the agency would meet in summer 2013 to reassess the issue.

"We will hope the planning is in place and the [National Nanotechnology Initiative] and others are moving forward," Samet said.

As their name suggests, nanomaterials are manufactured on the scale of a billionth of a meter. Their miniscule size, however, does not prevent them from potentially imposing negative health and environmental repercussions. Duke University engineering professor Mark R. Wiesner – who is also a member of the panel – said that the new warnings on nanomaterials would spur scientists to intensify their study of the emergent technology.

"A lot of things are being done right, but we need to think about how to regroup those efforts to get more power from the punch," he noted. "We cannot knock these things off on a case-by-case basis. The number and variety of nanomaterials that [are] possible is just mind-boggling. There are not enough beakers to do all the experiments required."


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